Leon and Rita have been married for 4 years. It is a second marriage for Leon who is 10 years older than Rita. He has shared custody of his two teenage daughters from his first marriage. Rita had never been married. She was 38 years old when she moved from her hometown and married Leon. Together they have a little boy, who is 3 years old.

When Rita and Leon came for counseling, they both expressed terrible frustration with the marriage. Leon was upset that Rita not only didn't make a connection with his daughters, but, on the contrary, was constantly bickering with them. Rita, on the other hand was furious about being "Number 3" (as she put it) in Leon's life. She felt that his daughters and his career came before her.

As counseling progressed it became apparent that both Leon and Rita had quite different expectations when they first married. Their dream of a quiet, peaceful cooperative relationship was just that—a dream. Leon was spending more and more time away from Rita and their son. Even on Sundays, which were supposed to be their time together, he often was "on call" for his daughters – whether it be a sport's game they were involved in, or a special need that their mom couldn't fill.

Rita couldn't believe that he refused to set some limits and was distancing himself more and more from her and their son. She was lonely and afraid. She felt estranged from everything that had been near and dear to her.

As counseling proceeded, Leon and Rita became more aware of the reality of their lives. In truth, there were 3 families in the picture: 1) Leon and his daughters, 2) Leon and Rita & their son, and 3) Rita and her son. We looked at the reality of where Leon and Rita could function as a couple – without tension. Rita understood that in trying to be a mother to Leon's girls, she had overstepped her boundary. Their relationship with their father, their personal space in the home – these were between them and their father. Rita needed to "step out." (Yes – in the common areas of the home – the girls should be responsible for themselves, but not in their own bedrooms and bathroom). She was not to "mother" them in any way; not to discipline them, not to interfere, and not to take personally their resentment against her. (Stories of "wicked step mothers" are not just fairy tales – but, often, pain that results from expectations and weak boundaries.)

Leon also understood that Rita was not to be "on call" for the girls – in terms of their demands for certain kinds of meals, for making their lunches, or even doing their laundry. They were old enough to take responsibility for these chores, and not constantly criticize Rita for what she was not doing for them.

In terms of their relationship, Leon and Rita agreed to set aside time, just for the two of them. They needed to nurture their relationship, and focus on the shared interests and strengths that brought the two of them together.

Rita's dependence on Leon for "making her happy" in her new environment was another difficult challenge to overcome. Rita had been "waiting" many long years for her "prince charming" to come and save her from her loneliness and feelings of inadequacy. The same pattern was again presenting itself again, although in different circumstances.

Rita was willing to stop "waiting" for Leon, and instead got involved in some projects and began to work on her connections to the community and establish friendships. She developed "an attitude of gratitude." Here she was married – and with a son! She realized she could find happiness in her present situation, even if it didn't meet her ultimate dreams. She stopped comparing notes with friends – which simply created jealousy. As she saw more choices, she felt less like a "victim" and more like a "victor." Her self-esteem was becoming stronger as she realized where she was able to take responsibility for her own (positive) thought, speech and actions.

Together, we worked out alternatives to her being involved with Leon's daughters. She stepped back from trying to "mother" the girls, and instead made more realistic decisions about when to be involved and when to step away.

With the expectations at a more realistic level, and Rita moving into a more "empowered" self, the tension at home lessened considerably. She found that Leon began spending more time with his little son. And, on his initiative (not her nagging), they were creating greater family experiences. Whenever there was a setback and Rita felt she was #3 (that did happen, from time to time), she no longer saw the situation as hopeless, but rather as a temporary "old habit" that provoked "old feelings" – but, indeed, passed quickly as she found healthier ways to deal with the situation.